Thursday, 12 January 2012


Following the premiere of Steve McQueen’s new film Shame – which tackles the theme of sex addiction – the director took part in a question and answer session with the audience at London’s National Film Theatre. McQueen explains that the screenplay, which he co-wrote with Abi Morgan, is an exploration of aspects of contemporary sexuality that have the potential to destroy lives. He likens current attitudes towards sex addiction as analogous to alcoholism fifty years ago: a largely misunderstood phenomenon that is not taken very seriously. Yet McQueen is not seeking to make any kind of moral intervention in contemporary debates about sexual culture. Instead, he is using his skills as a film maker to explore reality and pose questions.

The unflinching portrayal of sexual dysfunction in the central character Brandon Sullivan (played by Michael Fassbender) is also an indirect critique of mainstream film making with its incessant portrayal of violence but inability to represent human corporeality effectively or convincingly. The choreography of the opening sequence and its depiction of urination are suggestive of a highly uncompromising physicality that consistently challenges us as an audience to face the intimate details of someone else’s life. The arrival of Brandon’s sister Sissy (played by Carey Mulligan) adds further drama and tension to the chaotic and highly claustrophobic mise-en-scène. Interestingly, McQueen suggests that the sister’s emotional neediness and self-destructive behaviour can be likened to a kind of “love addition” that parallels the torment of her brother. The film reveals little about their background in New Jersey but both characters are mired in low self esteem despite the outward trappings of success: Brandon has a well paid job and expensive flat in mid-town Manhattan whilst his sister is a talented singer. As McQueen points out, the film is not trying to say that Brandon is either “good” or “bad” and the gruelling denouement is left deliberately elegiac and open ended.

The film begins and ends with an enigmatic exchange of glances in a subway carriage. For McQueen, the setting of the film in New York is pivotal since the city is an apparent “mecca of western freedom” yet also a place of intense loneliness that Brandon has transformed into a kind of psychological prison. It is a city in which everyone seems to be “living and working in the sky” and where we repeatedly look out on “huge vistas” that intensify our own sense of insignificance. Brandon’s own apartment, which forms the cramped epicentre for the film, is located on the 25th floor so that we often see him looking across the city confronted by his own reflection. In discussing the theme of urban isolation McQueen makes an apposite comparison with the art of Edward Hopper as well as the earlier cinematic exploration of self-destructive anomie in Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend (1945). It will be interesting to see whether Shame — and its outstanding central performances — gets the critical acclaim that it deserves.

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